Early summer is the time to go island hopping in the Aegean. The harbours of Greek islands such as Rhodes, Kos and Kalimnos are lined with small ferries, fishing boats and caiques offering day trips to neighbouring islands in the Dodecanese, and to Greece’s nearest neighbour, Turkey.
From Agathonissi in the north to Kastellorizo in the far south east, the Dodecanese is a chain of over 1,000 islands, islets and rocky outcrops at the end of the eastern Mediterranean, strung out like a necklace along the west and south west coast of Asia Minor.
These are islands dripping with history and oozing with culture: Kos, where Hippocrates formulated the foundations of modern medicine; Patmos, where St John the Divine wrote The Book of Revelation; Kalimnos, Leros and Simi, with their neo-classical mansions; and Rhodes, where the giant Colossus once straddled the harbour of Mandhraki, holding aloft the flame of freedom that inspired the Statue of Liberty.
The casual freedom of land and sea, to hop from one island to the next, is part of the lure of a holiday in the sun in this part of Greece. But it’s a freedom that comes with a price, and a freedom valued by the local Greeks. At the crossroads of three continents, this island chain was once ruled by Alexander the Great and Ptolemy; it has been occupied by the Romans, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Knights of St John, the Turks, the Italians and Nazi Germany. Only with the end of the second World War was it finally handed over by Britain and incorporated into the Greek state in 1947.
Today, only 26 of the Dodecanese islands are inhabited: the largest, Rhodes, has about 100,000 people, but most have only a few hundred residents or less, and there are only 79 people left on Pserimos.
The large Turkish minorities in Rhodes and Kos and the mosques and minarets still dotting the skylines of many islands are ever present reminders that Turkey occupied the Dodecanese for almost 400 years, from 1522 to 1912. Turkey is Greece’s nearest neighbour, and from many islands you can feel it’s almost possible to touch the Turkish coast with its harbours and towns, houses and hotels.
The fishermen and ferry operators supplement their income during these months with day trips from Rhodes to Marmaris, from Simi to Data, and from Kos to Bodrum, site of the ancient world’s Hallicarnassus and its Mausoleum.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the NV Nissos offers day trips to Turkey, leaving Kos at 9 a.m. and returning at 5 p.m. But as a small group of not more than two dozen journalists boarded the Nissos in Kos Harbour, close to the Plane Tree of Hippocrates and the Mosque of Hatzi Hassan, we were reminded of the ever present fear of an invasion from Anatolia, five kilometres across the stretch of water: local people talk in terms of “when the Turks come”, not “if”.
With blue skies and blue seas, it could have been an idyllic summer trip. Apart from goat herds and environmentalists, few people ever bother to visit the more remote rocks off the coast of Kos, Kalimnos, Kalolimnos and Pserimos. The crew took down the sign reading “Turkey” as we sailed off for the islets of Imia or Limnia, two flat pancakes less than two miles from Kalolimnos, almost 2½ miles from the Turkish island of Cavus, and over three miles from the western most Turkish coast on the peninsula of Bodrum.
The Greek naval frigate HS Limnos, which had taken part in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, was fresh back from the Adriatic and had offered to take us out to look at the rocks. But before we left, Turkey protested and summoned the Greek ambassador in Ankara, Dimitrios Nezeritis, to warn against the media trip.
It was no idle warning: two days earlier, a Greek coastguard vessel and a Turkish patrol boat had collided in Greek waters, a mile south of Imia.
For more than 60 years, Turkey had accepted the maritime boundaries in the Aegean, defined by treaties and agreements with the Italians in 1923 and 1932, and ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1947. The boundaries were never challenged by Ankara until last December. But as Turkey faced a major political crisis with the unexpected electoral success of the Islamic Welfare Party, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara claimed for the first time that Imia was part of the Turkish province of Mugla.
Tension began to escalate and on January 27th Turkish journalists from the daily Hurriyet landed on the largest of the two Imia islets, tore down the blue and white Greek flag and hoisted the red and white star and crescent of Turkey.
Four days later, Turkish troops landed on the smaller rocky outcrop. The two countries were on the brink of war when President Clinton intervened and the Turkish troops withdrew.
The crisis was a temporary boost at home to Turkey’s Tansu Ciller as she searched (in vain) for a coalition partner to keep her in power. But it threatened to bring down the new Greek Prime Minister, Costas Simitis; his Foreign Minister, Theodoros Pangalos; and the Pasok government in Athens. Both sides agreed to withdraw their forces from the area around Imia and return to the status quo ante, although Ms Ciller continued to press Turkey’s claims to 3,000 Aegean islands – the sum total of all islands in Greek waters.
As we sailed out of Kos, the military tension was palpable and visible. Greek and Turkish jets buzzed overhead sporadically, a Greek coastguard vessel and a navy ship were within sight and, in the distance, we could catch a glimpse of a ship with Turkish naval markings.
Costas Bikas, the Foreign Ministry spokesman from Athens on board the Nissos, insisted there was nothing out of the ordinary about the cruise and it was none of Ankara’s business. But the Turks made it their business. As the Greek and Turkish jet fighters swooped low over the area, the Turkish foreign ministry took a group of foreign and local journalists out from Bodrum. Once again, there were new Turkish claims to the islets known to the Turks as Kardak – by Defence Minister Oltan Sunguklu and by naval spokesman Ali Kurunahmut, who told cruising journalists: “Kardak is a Turkish islet and we are in Turkish waters.”
Trailing both groups were reporters and camera crews from the Greek and Turkish press and television. The crisis had moved from territorial claims and counter claims to cruise and counter cruise for journalists in the Aegean. As Imia faded out of sight, we followed past Pserimos, Kalolimnos, Leros and Kalimnos, through the straits separating Kalimnos and Telendhos, into Pothia, the port harbour of Kalimnos – names that once tripped off the tongues of backpackers in the 1970s.
As we disembarked at the dockside in Pothia, the microphones and cameras crowded into our faces: the foreign media had become the message.
The rocky island of Kalimnos is famous for its traditional sponge fishing; its fame in the past rested on Homer’s reference in the Iliad to the ships from the “Kalyndian Islands” taking part in the Trojan wars. Today, war remains an ever present threat to the peace of the islanders and their sponge fishers.
The Nissos returned to Kos to prepare for Sunday’s day trippers to Bodrum, and a launch from the Hellenic coastguard took us out from the harbour to the navy frigate Limnos, with its crew waiting to take us on to Rhodes. For four hours we watched the crew tracking Turkish moves in the Aegean sea and skies, before our odyssey came to an end and Rhodes came into sight with its mediaeval castles and palaces, mosques and minarets and three harbours.
Two deer stand at each end of Mandhrki where the Colossus once straddled the entrance to the harbour, with ships passing through its towering legs. A small tug, the Herakles, took us ashore, reminding us of the apt inscription that once graced Colossus, praising the lovely gift of unlettered freedom. “For to those who spring from the race of Herakles, dominion is a heritage both on land and sea.”
This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 6 July 1996